As every reader of Victorian and Regency romance knows, the restrictions around women of that time were numerous and unyielding. As those same readers know, the heroine of a romance is expected to challenge those restrictions, to defy her circumstances and thus win the hero’s heart. It is a genre expectation and authors who want to sell their work would do well to meet it.
No one really expects historical fiction to be a true account of women’t lives in that era but in the age of equal rights, it is difficult for many to understand just how dangerous it was for young women, or older women for that matter, to defy the rules. We might think being snubbed in the street is merely rude behaviour. For the Victorian girl, such a snub could affect her well-being for the rest of her life. If she became unmarriageable her financial security, her physical health and her emotional fitness would be lost, most likely forever. Such a disgraced female would be entirely dependent upon her family or the parish to feed, house and cloth her. Even if she could work she would have trouble finding respectable employment.
This precept was brought home to me this week as I was doing some background reading on Victorian mores. I came across several instructions to women from books of the time, both fiction like Charles Dickens works and manuals for household management like Mrs. Beeton’s. Here is a sampling.
- Man is the head of the household. Women are no better than children in their understanding and must bow to the superior knowledge of men.
- Housekeeping keeps women busy and out of mischief.
- Women should be “ministering angel to domestic bliss.”
- it is the biological destiny to of women to be wives and mothers and therefore housekeepers.
- The most important person in the household is the heard of the family, the father .. Though he may spend less time at home than any other member of the family – though he has scarcely a voice in family affairs – though the whole household machinery seems to go without the assistance of his management – still it does depend entirely on that active brain and those busy hands.
- “It is quite possible you many have more talent than your husband, with higher attainments, and you may also have been generally more admired; this has nothing whatever to do with your position as a woman which is, and must be, inferior to his as a man. — Sarah Stickney Ellis.
- “Women are born to perpetual pupilage. Not that their inclinations were necessarily wanton; they were simply incapable of attaining maturity, remained throughout their life imperfect beings, at the mercy of craft, ever liable to be misled by childish misconceptions.” George Gissing in The Odd Women
- Coventry Patmore “The Angel in the House” Housework is ideal for women, as its unending, non-linear nature gave it a more virtuous air than something which was focused, and could be achieved and have a result. Women are very like children, it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief. Therefore the blessedness of household toil, in especial the blessedness of child-bearing and all that followed.
There are more examples but because I’m now ready to spit nails I’ll spare you from reading them. Suffice it to say, the view of women as helpless, hopeless and heedless was so pervasive that all of society, rich and poor, male and female bought into the concept. Anyone, especially a woman, who threatened the established order was outside the pale.
When one considers the cruelties inflicted on suffragettes it becomes clear that women demanding the right to vote were seen as the enemy of the home. Since an “Englishman’s home was his castle” women of an independent mind were threatening the very fibre of the nation. Secure in this belief, imprisonment and force-feeding could be justified.
I love reading historical romance and am quite willing to suspend disbelief while my high-born lady masquerades as her brother or kicks over the conventions by dining alone with a man. The stories are fun and entertaining and brighten a gloomy day. But it is worth remembering that these tales are “fiction” and in some cases just as far-fetched as fantasy.
My all time favourite historical romance writer is Georgette Heyer. What’s yours?